Truth or Comfort in YA?

About Writing

Dec 06

I’ve often said in passing, that if I desired truth I’d rather read a novel than a newspaper article. While there’s a grain of truth in my jesting jab at the newspaper business, there is a great deal more truth to the rest of it. Writers bring fiction to life through truth. No matter the genre, the environment, the situation, if there isn’t enough truth to help a reader believe in what he’s seeing then it amounts to little more than a cheesy amusement park ride.

Where then do writers draw the line when the truth becomes uncomfortable? Violent crimes exist. Bad (misunderstood or unbalanced if you care about political correctness) people exist. Predators, human and animal alike, do what comes naturally to them no matter how much it might disturb others. As such I find the stories beneath my pen occasionally leading me down dark roads. Should I – the writer – stunt it, bent it, clip it like a bonsai tree to a shape I feel happier about or that is less likely to offend? Should I let the story grow organically?

Truth comes from the character, the plot, the story itself. To turn your back on that truth is to replace a story’s reality with a facade. That isn’t to say as writer I have no say in what goes into the story. An artistic hand can present ugly truth with gentle strokes that get the point across without every single grueling detail.

While I can only apply personal experience with my own writing, I find that holding back uncomfortable truths leads to a more forced writing feel. It leads to ingenuous situations where characters do what the writer wants rather than what is natural for them. At the same time, the author is responsible for the content, particularly when writing toward a younger audience. Language, violence and sexual content quickly become stumbling blocks when a writer wants to reach a wider audience which includes the young.

It is just such a dilemma which brings me to this little dissertation. I’ve got a YA novel about a teenage boy on his own, limping through post-invasion wastelands, floating about galaxies with a shipload of confused emotions and raging hormones. In the early novel he and an older girl cling to one another for survival in desperate straits, but in their shared quiet breaths between imminent death their moments of tenderness could (perhaps should) become more impassioned.

The father of a teenage daughter behind the keyboard holds his breath, closes his eyes and repeats to himself, “Their too scared, things are too uncertain for them to head down that path. Perhaps if they weren’t in such constant danger, but for now it will wait.”

The honest writer admits he’s making excuses.

As the novel progresses the situation arises again. Our teenage hero, still pining for that same girl he was forced to leave behind finds himself confronted by an offer most teen boys would leap at screaming tribal chants. Still, I am hesitant. The irony not lost on this writer is that were it not a YA, I’d let things take their course. So why does it make a difference?

Couldn’t I throw up my hands and shout. “Cable TV already told them all about it, even if their peers didn’t. I’m not responsible, it’s not my fault.”

Beyond being a massive cop out, it is only partially true. Writers carry a greater responsibility in my mind. While it is merely opinion, I’ve always felt written word sinks deep into its readers, staying with them long after some movie has faded from memory – the difference between a home-cooked meal and the fast food snack of your choice.

Should you do as I and consult your favorite web browser search engine, you will find zealous proponents on every side of this discussion. One thing I did find was another voice which echoed my own thoughts ( It isn’t about what I believe so much as what is right for the story and the characters. The author quoted Ursula Nordstrom, famous children’s book editor: “The writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

For years science fiction and fantasy authors used their stories to address social injustices and painful truths we’d rather have ignored. That’s what it’s about, don’t you think? We write about the fantastic. We write about better worlds. We use these journeys to bring truth to light, knowing that if nothing else we escort our readers through hopeful worlds where the truth isn’t so hard to take, hoping they take a little of that better world back with them into our own.

So which is it? Truth? Comfort?

Fault me for my opinion if you like, but I think my answer is respect. Perhaps it’s time we found our own courage and started treating our young adult readers with enough respect to show them a world as it is as well as how it could be with their help. Perhaps we should write it like it is with our characters’ guidance about what’s right for them.

What are your thoughts?

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